The 2023 road cycling season was an electrifying spectacle that left me utterly enthralled. It was a season of awe-inspiring athletic feats, nail-biting finishes, and the deepening of cherished traditions shared with my dad. Every race was a whirlwind of speed, strategy, and indomitable spirit, leaving us mesmerised and exhilarated. Constant text exchanges with my father during races are now an enduring tradition, a way to maintain a connection and share the thrill of the chase together even when we are far apart. We would meticulously synchronise our streams, pausing and resuming with unwavering precision, ensuring that neither of us could spoil any of the action.
This year, our attention, usually centred around the Tour de France, transcended the boundaries of the men's race. We eagerly devoured every race, from the Tour de France Femmes and the World Championships to the Vuelta a España and beyond. We were simply insatiable, yearning for every ounce of cycling action that the season had to offer. It was a revelation, a realisation that we had been depriving ourselves of so much by limiting our focus to a single Grand Tour. Each race was a unique masterpiece of human endurance and skill, and each one another opportunity to marvel at these athletes we admire so much.
Immersed in this cycling odyssey, I was not only captivated by the athletes' performances. For six consecutive weeks, with barely a breather between the men’s and women's Tours and the World Championships, commentator Ant McCrossan was my near constant companion, his voice gracing my ears from dawn till dusk and his knowledge and enthusiasm adding an extra layer of excitement to the unfolding drama. Ant’s voice provided the soundtrack to my winter, his commentary as essential to my days as the races themselves. (I do know my seasons; I just live in the Southern Hemisphere).
As in previous seasons, I found Ant’s commentary partnership with Nico Roche particularly enjoyable. Their contrasting personalities, especially Nico's blunt honesty keeping Ant on his toes, added a touch of humour to the proceedings. Ant's willingness to ask Nico insightful questions, from race strategies to nutritional tips, ensured that both novice and seasoned cycling fans were entertained and informed.
One particularly memorable moment from this year's men's Tour was Wout van Aert's incredible comeback on Stage 14. As the riders tackled the formidable Col de Joux Plane, Wout appeared to have emptied his tank having given everything to pull his teammates up the climb at a punishing pace. He dropped off from the group and looked completely spent, only to reappear two minutes later, take over the front of the group again, drop a bewildered Rafal Majka, and then fall right off again looking so finished that a spectator seemed to stop him from falling off his bike. When asked about it afterwards, Wout said he had good legs, and it was all a “mind game” with Majka.
Watching the Femmes
A major advantage of exploring all that cycling has to offer was being drawn into the women's cycling scene, a world of even more captivating athleticism, fierce competition, and inspiring stories. I was enthralled by the consistency and resilience of Demi Vollering, the tactical nous and calm, self-belief of Lotte Kopecky, the enduring legacy of Annemiek van Vleuten, and the pride of fellow South African Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. And while I was aware that my formerly limited engagement with the cycling season certainly played a role in how the women’s cycling world seemed, to me, to boom this year, the general shift towards greater promotion, broadcasting, and celebration of women’s cycling was still palpable.
Let's face it, women's sports haven't ever been given a fair shot. For decades, they've been relegated to the sidelines and overshadowed by the hype and glamour of men's sports. But the tide is turning. More and more people are tuning in to watch women's sports, and sponsors are taking notice. Across the board they have been gaining momentum, garnering more attention and media coverage than ever before. The quality of women's sports is skyrocketing. The skill and athleticism of female athletes are on full display, and the events are thrilling and captivating. All this has led to discussions about equal pay, gender equality, and the promotion of women's sports becoming more prevalent. Why are female athletes not raking in the same hefty pay cheques as the men?
There are no easy answers. While some argue that women's sports simply don't generate the same revenue as men's, others maintain that the disparity in pay is rooted in deep-seated gender bias and outdated notions of value. The argument that women's sports don't generate the same revenue as men's is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat women’s sport as an afterthought, it becomes one. If we don't invest in growing the market, it won't grow. Women's sports need greater investment, from grassroots all the way to the top, before we can make fair comparisons. And equal pay is near impossible without a working ecosystem. Sports teams, leagues, and broadcasters haven't put the same resources into promoting and broadcasting women's sports, which has limited their exposure and fan base. Viewers can’t be expected to go out of their way to watch women's sports when the men's equivalent is right in front of them.
While the women's cycling scene has made significant strides, it still lacks the resources and recognition it deserves. The lack of investment is evident in the limited broadcasting of women's races, the disparity in prize money, and the overall lack of exposure compared to men's cycling. Salary gaps between World Teams and Continental Teams are also huge, leaving many riders in the women’s peloton unpaid or earning very little. While there are some exceptions, like the Tour de France Femmes and the World Championships, many women’s races are not shown on major television networks or streaming services or are only shown in part, often with the main action of the day confined to the imagination having transpired before the start of the broadcast. Potential fans are not exposed to the sport, and the riders don’t have opportunities to build their brand and earn sponsorships. Without exposure and knowledge about the athletes, viewers understandably show little interest in the few televised races, perpetuating the perception that women's sports are inherently less exciting. Interest is driven by exposure, and the potential for growth remains untapped.
Following Demi Vollering's thrilling Col du Tourmalet victory on the penultimate stage of the Tour de France Femmes, I asked my dad what changed for him this year to garner interest in women’s cycling. He admitted that in previous years, watching it felt anticlimactic after the men’s race - the pinnacle of the sport. What could compare to the Tour de France? This, coupled with the perception of women's cycling as inherently less interesting, had deterred him from engaging previously. This year, however, because I took an interest and texted him during stages just as I had done with the men, he started watching too. As he began to recognise the riders and their narratives, he became invested in their stories and the unfolding drama. He realised that this mirrored his journey into men’s cycling over a decade ago. It took just a small spark to ignite and maintain his interest, and I'm convinced countless cycling fans are equally close to experiencing the thrill of women's cycling. My dad and I have derived immense joy from following women's cycling this year, and his story exemplifies how exposure can generate interest and appreciation for women's cycling.
Just as my dad’s perspective shifted after watching the women's races, so many others could soon discover the excitement and passion of the women’s scene. Women’s sports need to be promoted, broadcasted, and celebrated. It's time to stop making excuses and start investing in the future of women's sports. They have the potential to be a goldmine both in terms of financial gains and societal impact. The interest is there, the talent is there, the sponsors are lining up. If we give women's sports the chance to shine, they'll show us just how bright they can be.